CasualNation #39 – The Great Flavor Mistake

Hello, Nation! Today, I want to write my very first issue article in this column. I don’t write them very often, but when I do, it’s because I’m not reading other examples express my thoughts. One of the reasons that I rarely write an issue article is due to this simple fact. I read a lot of others, which usually express my thoughts. On the relatively rare occasions that they do not, I feel a need to write a column myself, and that is what we have today.

Today, I want to talk about some flavor misfires we’ve seen recently and not so recently. I want to focus on some major issues with creature types, and I want to express my dissatisfaction with several creature types and how they’ve not been treated as I feel makes sense and is appropriate.

Now, I’ve felt that the vast majority of cards we’ve seen in the last five years have been good or great. I don’t think any of the issues we’ll be discussing are so large that they’ve been this major thorn in my hypothetical craw.

I’m also not super Mr. Vorthos and I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about flavor things. These are just things that have tweaked me in one or more ways. Please do not feel that these issues are a major complaint, but just a misfire here and there.

Let’s talk of creature types.

A False Dichotomy

My masters degree is in public administration. When getting my MPA, I just owned the material. It was a lot of fun, especially the theory parts. My masters program was straight A’s with just one B to mar it (one of my finance classes). I loved it! My professors tried to recruit me to a DPA program (doctorate) so I could enter the field as a teacher. Although I didn’t, I would later teach public administration at Eastern Michigan University as a lecturer. It was a blast.

One of the interesting things in my field is the fact that Woodrow Wilson founded it. As an academic, prior to becoming the president, he came up with the idea of a politics–administration dichotomy. He thought that agencies should be filled with professionals who treat the administration as separate and nonpolitical. The elected officials make the law, and the professionals then enact the law with all due professionalism, and without regard to politics. This was the first time that such thought entered the American government realm.

We had just had a century of spoils-system politics running amok, and had recently instituted a civil service system. This was clearly the next step in that reform, with a new eye toward the nature of public administration. The problem is that any decision is a political one. Every time an agency or administrator makes a decision, politics enters into it. If an agency chooses to move the time that a drawbridge will be open to street traffic, shipping suffers. Vice versa if the drawbridge remains up more for shipping but conflicts with cars and traffic. Finding a balance is political—a compromise between competing parties. Even professionals have norms and biases.

In a few decades, the field had realized that the idea of a politics–administration dichotomy had too many flaws as a system. It was a false dichotomy.

One of the reasons that I didn’t like 3rd Edition for Dungeons & Dragons was the increased homogeneity of creature types. They took all of the awesome and interesting things out there in fantasyland, and organized them into a taxonomy. It felt like a flawed view of creatures. In Magic, the game mechanics require a taxonomy, so I have fewer issues with it here, but it’s regrettable that ghouls and mummies are zombies while akki and boggarts and madcaps are goblins, but oni were split into ogres and demons.

We are in an era of a false dichotomy in creature types. We believe that creatures, if intelligent, get a race and a class if they have one. Otherwise, they get a creature type, such as Beast or Pegasus or Goat or Kavu or some such—something that best describes them.

Here is my problem. We don’t have three creature types—classes, races, and animals (for lack of a better word for the unintelligent creature types out there such as those mentioned before, or Ooze or Plant or whatever). We have five!

1. Intelligent creature types that represent a race—humans, goblins, elves, dwarves, etc.
2. Intelligent creature type classes—warrior, soldier, archer, shaman, etc.
3. Unintelligent creature types—deer, pig, bird, beast, etc.

This is where you might think it ends, but it doesn’t.

4. Intelligent creature types that represent a race but for some random reason typically aren’t given a class—the clear example is Angel. There are certainly others.
5. Creature types that are a status, and neither a class nor a race—we’ll talk about these in a bit.

Of all of the printed angels in Magic, none were two races prior to the Great Creature Type Update, but a few creatures gained the angel type, and Warrior Angel gained the warrior type. I suppose we don’t want to think of the high and mighty Angels as having classes, but shouldn’t some like Warrior or Soldier come naturally?

Dragons are questionable. They obviously have a lot of cunning, but are often portrayed a bit more like fierce animals. I doubt that many races have the intellect required to take a class, and thus their view as just dragons is appropriate.

Anyway, let’s look at that final category. These creature types are the ones that are getting hosed, to my mind, because they don’t fit into the false dichotomy between classes and races. There are a lot of creature types that are neither one nor the other, and it’s starting to get annoying that they are not represented as they should be.

An Illusion, a Zombie, and a Nomad Walk Into a Bar

Let’s look at what makes a creature type a status. The clear and obvious example is a zombie. Magic has been treating zombies generally as a race, but it clearly isn’t. They are zombified forms of something. The great creature type update fixed a lot of these problems, by adding types to zombies and that’s certainly a valuable way of looking at it. Every time I see a zombie, I want to know, what is it a zombie of? While there certainly could be creatures that are just zombie (by being composed of many different parts of many different creatures), the clear and obvious way of looking at zombies is as an animated version of something. Whatever that thing is, the zombie is too.

Take a look at many modern zombies for evidence. Blackcleave Goblin is a zombie goblin. Perfect. Cyclopean Giant is a zombie giant. Perfect. Dreg Reaver is a Zombie Beast. Perfect. What about the others?

How come there are no zombie humans? I can slide Festering Goblin or Blackcleave Goblin into a Goblin deck or a Zombie deck. Shouldn’t I be able to slide animated humans into a Human deck? Clearly, the great Creature Type Update decided that animated creatures could be any creature type save one. Ironically, that one was the one most commonly animated. When a zombie is clearly a human with two arms, two legs, one head, and so forth, then it should have been given the Human type. We get a worm for Waning Wurm, after all. I think the decided lack of details for zombies is because they are viewed as a race, when they are not. They are a status.

Another status is illusion. We’ve already seen some illusions getting serious love in Magic 2012, so perhaps this is changing, and that is very good. Illusions are of something. We should either have all illusions be just illusions, because they can’t be anything else, or they should have the types of what they emulate. Take a look at the Magic 2012 Phantasmal Bear, a 2/2 creature for just {U}. It’s an Illusion and a Bear.

How come Adarkar Windform isn’t an Illusion Drake? (Or perhaps Illusion Elemental). Amugba is ideal for Illusion Beast. Fathom Seer can be an Illusion Wizard. Illusionary Forces and Phantasmal Forces can be Illusion Soldiers. The only time when an Illusion is something in addition to being an Illusion is when that something is in the title (Dragon, Bear, Wall, Sliver, even Mutant, etc.). They gave Phantasmal Mount the Horse type, which was a bit out of character, but mount and horse are similar names, so I get it. (Of course, you could have a mount that’s not a horse, but the picture clearly is.)

Again, this has to be because Illusions are considered to be a race, but they aren’t. They are a status. You are an Illusion of a beast, a vampire, an elemental, or something else. While it certainly is possible that you could have an illusion of just a force or a thing without types, that would be the clear minority of creatures printed. Most of these could easily have types added to them.

Nomad and Barbarians are on the other side of this. They are considered classes, but they aren’t, they are each a status. You can be an Elf Shaman who is a Nomad. You can be a Human Berserker who is a Barbarian. Barbarians, despite the presence of a D&D class, are not classes, and most know that. Not all players come to Magic from D&D. Other types that are treated as a class, but are not, include Flagbearer, Minion (actually, Minion is sometimes treated as a race too), and Pirate.

Note that at least one creature type is a status, and treated as such. Ally was on a lot of creatures, but they had races and, where appropriate, classes as well.

There is one more creature type which is sometimes a status. Spirits. The Spirit creature type is used on two occasions, and this confuses people. It would probably be simpler to split the type in two, spirits on one side, ghosts on another. Some creatures with the spirit type represent those who have passed from this realm to another. Examples of those spirits that represent what I will call ghosts are the Rusalkas, Ghost Council of Orzhov, and Revered Dead. These are creatures that have passed, but retain their essence. Just like an animated bear should have the bear type, and an illusion of a bear should as well, similarly, the spirit of a bear that had died should be a bear (and it can, see Spectral Bears). Similarly, Martyred Rusalka should be a Human Spirit. In these cases, the Spirit type is a status.

Some creatures with the spirit type represent creatures that are just partially physical and thus beyond our normal scope. Those are absolutely appropriate as the spirit type, because in these cases, spirits are representing something else. They are a race and not a status. Kamigawa spirits are a perfect example of these.

Sometimes I feel like we’ve missed on spirits versus elementals. Thunder Spirit was retconned with the Elemental Creature type. Why? Why wasn’t Tradewind Rider given the elemental type as well? Soul of Magma shows a modern card with an elemental feel but the spirit creature type instead. It demonstrates that spirits can have an elemental feel and yet be fully spirits. So why was Thunder Spirit changed at all, if others weren’t? I don’t get that. I don’t understand the flavor difference between these two on these cases. (The same is also true of walls and elementals. Shouldn’t Wall of Fire, Wall of Water, and so forth be elementals?)

Why is Pirate a creature type but not Bandit? Bandit was changed to Rogues or Warriors, where appropriate. Why leave Pirate? I doubt we’ll see Pirates any time soon. They should be Red by color philosophy, but they live on the sea, and it’s clear that WotC doesn’t want creatures that represent one philosophy living in another’s domain (even though it should happen all of the time, and it reduces the diversity of the world). You don’t see paladins and knights living in mountains, wizards and scholars in forests, elves on boats, and so forth. Even though they all should be, you just don’t see it. Pirates shouldn’t be Blue; they are just bandits on water.

While on the subject of creature types, how come these two creatures have the titles of creature types, but not the type—Wandering Eye for eye, and Dragon Engine for dragon? I get why Giant Spider is not a giant, because giant is used as an adjective. Dragon Engine is not using dragon as an adjective, nor is Wandering Eye using eye as one. Burning-Eye Zubera is using eye as an adjective, so I get why it’s not rocking the Eye creature type. Ditto Sewn-Eye Drake. But Wandering Eye should be an Eye, and that would help Evil Eye decks.

Note that some creatures did gain types from adjectives in the Great Creature Type Update. Angelic Curator and Angelic Page gained the Angel type, despite “Angelic” being used as an adjective.

How come some creatures named “Raider” or “Raiders” were given the warrior type (Erg Raiders, Goblin Raider, Goblin Sky Raider) and modern-day raiders all have the warrior type (such as Akki Raider), but many older raiders were not changed? (Mon’s Goblin Raiders, Bog Raiders, Saprazzan Raider).

Aside: One reason not to include many of these types that are statuses as such is the fact that a type line is only so large. Imagine “Creature – Human Zombie Wizard” on a type line. Then add Legendary or Snow or Artifact to it and you get some problems. It still fits, though. Take a look at the Archenemy copy of Dragonspeaker Shaman. It is “Creature – Human Barbarian Shaman.” It all fits. Plus, you could just do what people do in the text box—reduce the font if necessary. Or you could just change the concept of the card so that it does all fit. I understand that it may look a bit clunky at first, but we would all soon get used to status cards looking like that.

Well, I had meant to discuss other flavor issues. I was going to talk about how Runeclaw Bear should be Blue and not Green by philosophy (taking an animal and enhancing it is Blue tinkering with nature, and not Green satisfied with it; note that they changed the flavor text in Magic 2011, probably to make it seem more Green, but the very concept of runes, which is writing of a magical or nonmagical nature, is against that of nature and Green, no matter how you flavor it in the textbox. Note that they got rid of the nature quote in Magic 2012). I was going to talk about how Sphinx of the Steel Wind should be mono-White and another major issue, although that’s not really flavor, but design I suppose. Lots of creatures that looked like an animal (such as Scandalmonger) got that type, but Bogardan Firefiend is not a boar? How come Symbiotic Beast got errata’d to an insect, but both Symbiotic Wurm and Symbiotic Elf, in the same set with the exact same flavor and mechanics, did not?

One of the reasons we lost some of the creatures types as so that we would have fewer ones in our space. When I do a search for creature type, all of the Un- sets types are included as well, massively increasing the space. Some of the old creature types are there, like hero and lord. Hero and lord are still creature types, because Un- sets have them, and thus they are still in databases and so forth. Why pull out creature types that have to remain? Why eliminate the hero type if it’s still there in Fraction Jackson?

Anyway, I was going to talk a lot more about flavor issues I’ve noticed, but we are going to stop here, at creature types. I think that many of these issues are not as clear at WotC would like them to be. Flavor should be crystal clear, and in many creature types, it’s not. It’s confusing. Ah well. I hope you enjoyed today’s article, and remember, just because I point out some issues that I have with the flavor of creatures and types doesn’t mean that I am super-mega-pissed at the game or anything. It’s just irksome sometimes, that’s all.

See you next week,
Abe Sargent